Expedition to Antarctica finds signs of life—researchers investigating if it still exists

January 24, 2019, University of South Florida
Credit: University of South Florida

An astonishing discovery is made by a research team including Brad Rosenheim, Ph.D., associate professor of geological oceanography in the USF College of Marine Science. He just returned from a six-week expedition to Antarctica where he lived in a tent under constant sunlight in a remote field camp roughly 500 miles from the South Pole.

Rosenheim is a principal investigator of the SALSA (Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access) project, which became first to explore Mercer Subglacial Lake. The body of water is twice the size of Manhattan and had previously been identified only via satellite.

The team, successful in all aspects of their sampling, found : as well as skeletal remains of tiny crustaceans and even the carcass of an eight-legged tardigrade. Researchers are now taking environmental RNA and DNA samples to see which of the creatures were alive at the time of discovery and which are ancient fossil remains.

Rosenheim and his Ph.D. student Ryan Venturelli are helping solve that mystery by using sophisticated radiocarbon dating methods pioneered at USF to put into context how the ecosystem flourishes. They gathered samples by coring six feet below the lake, some 4000 feet below the where their remote camp was located, to obtain a very rare subglacial sediment core. They hypothesize that the ice above Mercer Subglacial Lake melted at some point during the last 60,000 years, allowing and sunlight-driven photosynthetic products to be deposited in what is now fresh water Lake Mercer. Testing for the presence (or absence) of14C in this system will support (or refute) their hypothesis.

Credit: University of South Florida
"Finding life in such a remote, untouched place is astonishing," said Rosenheim. "We now have to figure out the structure of the ecosystem, specifically how relict carbon could be driving it energetically. Our techniques will also tell us about the history of the ice sheet over the last Ice Age, which is of significant importance to Floridians because of the threat of sea level rise. These sediments will generate much more interest when we are finished working on them because they are so rare and unique."

Fifty scientists, support and technical staff from eleven institutions participated in the SALSA project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. They'll now begin interdisciplinary analysis of water and sediment samples taken from the lake. More information will come from the skeletal remains in the and what was most recently alive. This research not only represents exploration of little-known parts of our own planet, but also provides a template for finding life in similar environments on other planets and moons.

Expedition to Antarctica finds signs of life—researchers investigating if it still exists
Credit: University of South Florida

Explore further: What's under the Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Related Stories

What's under the Antarctic Ice Sheet?

December 5, 2018

A unique method created by a USF associate professor to determine radiocarbon ages will be central to an expedition expected to transform the way we view the Antarctic continent.

Microbe hunt beneath Antarctic ice sheet

January 2, 2019

Renowned Montana State University polar scientist John Priscu and a team of researchers from more than a dozen universities will begin the new year hunting for microbes and other living specimens in a lake far beneath the ...

What lies beneath West Antarctica?

April 29, 2016

Three recent publications by early career researchers at three different institutions across the country provide the first look into the biogeochemistry, geophysics and geology of Subglacial Lake Whillans, which lies 800 ...

Engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

October 10, 2011

Next week a British engineering team heads off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. This extraordinary ...

Recommended for you

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.